From the Garden Gate: A Love Affair with Gardening

Apr 30, 2013

We're starting a new weekly commentary.  It's titled "From the Garden Gate." It is contributed by Murray resident Roy Helton who divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening. 

I have had a love affair with gardening, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember. I used to spend part of my childhood summers in the small town where my grandmother and great-grandmother lived together in a rambling Victorian era house. They had a large vegetable garden which was plowed and planted by other family members. But my great-grandmother, already in her late 80’s, had her own little garden that she would show to me. Nannie would don her apron and her battered straw hat with its disintegrating brim, pick up her butcher knife from the back porch, and tell me to follow her. It was time to plant. I trailed along behind her as we found our way through the gloom of the long shed that opened into the little fenced spot that she had claimed. The thick banks of blackberry vines enclosing it made my own secret garden. As I looked on, she bent down and demonstrated how to use the heavy blade of the knife to loosen the earth and shape it into mounds where she could plant her cucumber seeds. I felt as if I had entered an inner sanctum to help her perform a ritual I was sure few people could have ever seen, certainly not my sister or my younger brothers.

Back then, gardening—or at least my part in it--had its challenges as well. There was the plum tree, for instance—a treasure in my great-grandmother’s eyes. As far as I could tell the only purpose served by the plum tree was that it littered the grass near the garden gate with overripe fruit which squished between my toes when I was sent out to pick tomatoes or beans. Worse yet, the squashed fruit was an absolute magnet for hordes of wasps and yellow jackets which turned the trip to the garden into a barefoot dance though a minefield of stingers.

I also discovered back then there was much to be learned about plants and their care and their often mysterious ways. For example, I learned how to pronounce “peony.” My grandmother pointed out in her distinctively school teacher voice that the word was pronounced “PEA-ony” and under no circumstances was to be uttered as “pea-OWNY,” a sure sign, according to her, of a lack of not only knowledge, but probably also good breeding.

It was during those summers I began to pay attention to flowers. I look back now and wonder maybe if flowers are in a botanical conspiracy and know who can and can’t be tempted into a life among them. They managed to recruit me during those summers. There were drifts of German irises, and I became fascinated by the beards of the flowers and the curious little rooms that the standards seemed to form at the top of the flower, and the long green, swordlike blades of the leaves. Near the grape arbor there was a bird bath, so badly cracked that it had not held water for years, but it was surrounded by what I came to regard as a small army of phlox, all standing straight up, forming a sort of pink-helmeted palace guard around the bird bath. And the holly hocks—ah, they were the circus come to town.

I’ve come to suspect that people who turn into real gardeners all have a wealth of connections to plants that stretch back into their past and bind that past to the present. Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.

This is the first in a new weekly commentary series titled "From the Garden Gate" and contributed by Roy Helton who divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening.